Elizabeth Gaskell (1810-1865) was a British novelist during the Victorian era and published several novels during her lifetime. One of these was North and South, which first appeared in serial form in 1854 for the journal Household Words, and was later published as a book in 1855.
North and South explores the differences between the lifestyle and culture in the south of England and that of the north, which was becoming more industrialised during this period. It also examines the relatively new types of relationships that were developing between business owners or manufacturers and their employees in a time of great industrial change.
The novel follows Margaret Hale, a young lady who moves with her father and mother from their family home in Helstone, a rural setting in Hampshire, England, to the busy and smoky manufacturing town of Milton-Northern, in the industrial north.
But Margaret was at an age when any apprehension, not absolutely based on a knowledge of facts, is easily banished for a time by a bright sunny day, or some happy outward circumstance. And when the brilliant fourteen fine days of October came on, her cares were all blown away as lightly as thistledown, and she thought of nothing but the glories of the forest.
Margaret’s father resigns his position as a clergyman due to doubts as to his religious beliefs, and decides – on the advice of a good friend, Mr Bell – to move to the north where he hopes to obtain a position as a private tutor. This change in abode creates quite a deal of anxiety and resentment for Margaret’s mother.
Milton could be considered as the polar opposite of Helstone. Where Helstone is green and peaceful, Milton is grey and smokey, noisy and busy. The relationships between people in Helstone are the traditional relationships between people in a normal English village, with the landed gentry who own estates, and the servants, tenants, and clergy that make up the rest of the village. In contrast, the relationships in the town of Milton are based on employment 0r business. Here people are business owners or manufacturers, and employ workers in order to produce goods for sale.
In this new town, Margaret Hale is soon introduced to one of the owners of a local cotton mill, Mr John Thornton, as he is one of her father’s new students. She is struck first by his rude manners, and his preference for Milton over the aristocratic life in the south, as well as his attitudes towards wealth and progress. Later, she feels that he is also cruel and unsympathetic to the plights of his workers.
“It is no boast of mine,” replied Mr Thornton, “it is plain matter-of-fact. I won’t deny that I am proud of belonging to a town – or perhaps I should rather say district – the necessities of which give birth to such grandeur of conception. I would rather be a man toiling, suffering – nay, failing and successless – here, than lead a dull prosperous life in the old worn grooves of what you call more aristocratic society down in the South, with their slow days of careless ease. One may be clogged with honey and unable to rise and fly.”
“You are mistaken,” said Margaret, roused by the aspersion on her beloved South to a fond vehemence of defence, that brought the colour into her cheeks and the angry tears into her eyes. “You do not know anything about the South. If there is less adventure or less progress – I suppose I must not say less excitement – from the gambling spirit of trade, which seems to requisite to force out these wonderful inventions, there is less suffering also. I see men here going about in the streets who look ground down by some pinching sorrow or care – who are not only sufferers but haters. Now, in the South we have our poor, but there is not that terrible expression in their countenances of a sullen sense of injustice which I see here. You do not know the South, Mr Thornton,” she concluded, collapsing into a determined silence, and angry with herself for having said so much.
“And may I say you do not know the North?” asked he, with an inexpressible gentleness in his tone, as he saw that he had really hurt her. She continued resolutely silent; yearning after the lovely haunts she had left far away in Hampshire, with a passionate longing that made her feel her voice would be unsteady and trembling if she spoke.
Margaret also has the opportunity to become friends with some of the workers in the mills that live close by her. This gives her a sense of how their lives are affected by their working conditions in the cotton mills.
A crisis develops when the mill owners refuse to give a pay rise to the workers. The workers, in an attempt to force the mill owners hands, form a “Union” and decide to strike. Gaskell paints the two sides of the issue quite well, as the mill owners are unable to afford to give a rise in pay because their products are not obtaining a high enough price in the marketplace. The position of the strikers is also pitiable, for even though some are starving and unable to continue surviving on strike pay, the Union will not let them return to work.
Eventually, the desperation rises to a pinnacle when Irish workers are bought in to run the mill. The workers riot and Margaret is injured when she is visiting the Thornton’s mill.
Many in the crowd were mere boys; cruel and thoughtless, – cruel because they were thoughtless; some were men, gaunt as wolves, and mad for prey. She knew how it was; they were like Boucher, – with starving children at home – relying on ultimate success in their efforts to get higher wages, and enraged beyond measure at discovering that Irishmen were to be brought in to rob their little ones of bread. Margaret knew it all; she read it in Boucher’s face, forlornly desperate and livid with rage. If Mr Thornton would but say something to them – let them hear his voice only – it seemed as if it would be better than this wild beating and raging against the stony silence that vouchsafed them no word, even of anger or reproach.
When Mr Thornton proposes to her on the following day, feeling bound to do so in honour, she refuses him. He becomes even more convinced that she is a proud and haughty girl, as her London manners suggest.
By this time Margaret’s mother has become dangerously ill, and she writes to her exiled brother in Spain to come quickly in utmost secrecy. He arrives and, through a course of cruel coincidences, Mr Thornton comes to believe that Margaret is a loose woman who keeps the company of strange men at odd hours of the day, even refusing to admit it in the face of criminal prosecution. This further estranges the two, though it is as this point that Margaret begins to learn more of Mr Thornton’s good heart.
Margaret Hale is affected by death quite significantly through the course of the book. Her neighbour and friend, Bess Higgins, dies from “fluff on the lungs” due to a long exposure at the cotton mill. Margaret’s mother dies, after a long battle with illness, and then her father dies suddenly when he is away from home. Margaret struggles in different ways to deal with these losses, but particularly that of her father. At the time of her father’s death, she has quite reconciled herself to Milton ways and is forced to leave suddenly to live with her aunt in London.
Mr Bell, her father’s oldest friend and owner of extensive property in Milton, decides to leave Margaret all his possessions and then also suddenly dies. Margaret suddenly finds herself in charge of a large fortune, with Mr Thornton as one of her tenants.
Since the strike, the mill has been going badly, due partly to the long strike action as well as a downturn in the market for cotton. As a result, Thornton’s mill is forced to close. Margaret offers Mr Thornton an investment of some of her capital which would enable him to reopen to continue his trade. At this point they are reconciled to each other, having finally seen the good in each other.
I really liked the BBC mini-series, as well as the book. The book relies on quite a deal of narrative to tell the story, which the movie adaptation had to put into scenes. This means that the flow of the screenplay is a little different to the book, which tends to happen to any book that is made into a movie or mini-series. In addition, the mini-series is commonly thought to have the most romantic kiss of all period dramas!
And romantic kisses are always my cup of tea!
Emma Bovary: A lesson in happiness – other 19th century literature
Sources and Relevant Links
North and South, by Elizabeth Gaskell (1855) – read online
North and South (2004) – the mini-series
Richard Armitage Online – about his role as Mr Thornton